The soils beneath our feet teem with fungi. The mycelia-networks of rootlike hyphae that form the actual fungal organism-are interwoven and conjoined with tree roots underground. During the winter months, rain spurs the matrix of mycelia to develop fruiting bodies: mushrooms. These caps emerge from the duff in a great variety of shapes and colors.
Public parks are great places to spot varieties of mushrooms. But beware: most parks in California restrict or outright forbid mushroom collecting; in some parks, the fines can be considerable. Furthermore, those untrained in the proper identification of California’s approximately 300 species should take care, as more than a few are toxic if eaten. However, there are no penalties-and many rewards-for admiring these evanescent beauties in their natural settings. Here is, by county, a list of some sites recommended by local fungophiles for good mushroom viewing.
Alameda: Albany Hill Park
Adjacent to Cerrito Creek, this local landmark is home to more than 134 native plant species. Mushrooms to be found in the oak woodland on the north side include the curious anise-scented Agaricus semotus under oak trees, while fresh, yellowish sunny-side-ups emerge from manure, tall grasses, or on decayed wood. Fawn pluteus, characterized by a radish-like smell, prefers decaying hardwood trees. False turkey tails, leathery mushrooms that appear folded or wavy, cluster on fallen branches, logs, and stumps, and occasionally on living trees. (No collecting allowed.)
Other locations: Joaquin Miller Park (Oakland), Garin/Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Park (Hayward)
Contra Costa: Redwood Regional Park (Oakland hills)
Starting from either end, a hike between Redwood Gate and Skyline Gate will take you through oak woodlands and redwood-dominated riparian areas. From January on, waxy caps of all sorts will emerge. Many waxy caps are associated with coast live oaks. Look for the orangish meadow waxy cap and reddish-orange scarlet waxy cap in damp spots beneath redwoods. Witch’s hat is a red, orange, or yellow mushroom that blackens with age. The cowboy’s handkerchief is a white mushroom that is reputedly so slimy, it’s hard to pick and its slime collects debris like glue. (No collecting allowed.)
Other locations: Briones Regional Park (Lafayette), Sycamore Canyon in Mount Diablo State Park, Las Trampas Regional Wilderness (Danville)
Marin: Point Reyes National Seashore
A hike along the Bear Valley Trail will take you through Douglas-fir and coast live oak woodlands. Expect to find Boletus edulis and chanterelles. Sharp eyes might find wild oyster mushrooms growing along the streams, while lime green waxy caps can be found under bay trees. (Two gallons per person per day.)
Other locations: Muir Woods National Monument, Roy’s Redwoods Open Space Preserve (San Geronimo), Samuel P. Taylor State Park (Lagunitas)
San Francisco: Presidio / Lands End (Golden Gate National Recreation Area)
The Presidio is renowned among aficionados for porcini mushrooms, and a stroll past the golf course at Lands End might bring you king boletes, shaggy parasols, and several species of Agaricus, including bleeding, banded, and princess. A common sight on the lawns is the haymaker, a fragile brown-capped mushroom that’s also one of the more common LBMs (little brown mushrooms). (One quart per person, per day, for personal consumption only.)
Other locations: Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park
San Mateo: Portola Redwoods State Park
Eighteen miles of trails take you through coast redwood and Douglas-fir forest, as well as live oak woodlands, both prime locations for mushroom hunting. Here, a little exploring might unearth western painted suillus, orange hydnellum, and split-gill. With some luck and a practiced nose, you might stumble across Trametes suaveolens, whose smell has been likened to anise, cinnamon, and sweet herbs. (No collecting allowed.)
Other locations: Junipero Serra County Park (San Bruno); Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve; San Pedro Country Park (Montara Mountain); Wunderlich County Park (Woodside).
Santa Cruz: Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Some 18,000 acres of old-growth redwood forest and mixed conifer, oak, chaparral, and riparian habitats are home to witch’s hat, starving man’s licorice, scarlet waxy caps, righteous waxy caps, and more. Poor man’s licorice, also known as black jelly drops, is a common rubbery specimen that grows on dead oaks. (No collecting allowed.)
Other locations: Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park; UC Santa Cruz campus
Santa Clara: Henry Coe State Park
Although the climate here is drier, there are still plenty of mushrooms throughout Coe’s 250 miles of roads and trails. The Flat Frog Trail and the Springs Forest Trail Loop could yield turkey tails, earthstars, and blewits, which sometimes occur in fairy rings. Honey mushrooms, also known as “oak root fungus,” can be found clustered on oak roots as well as stumps and logs. Witch’s butter is a jellylike fungus that resembles seaweed and is common on hardwood stumps and fallen branches. Also look for shaggy mane, a mushroom that resembles an albino pinecone and that has a propensity for growing through asphalt. (No collecting allowed.)
Other locations: Mt. Madonna County Park (Gilroy); Sanborn Skyline County Park (Saratoga); Stevens Creek County Park (Cupertino)
Sonoma: Salt Point State Park
Salt Point on the Sonoma coast is heralded as one of the Bay Area’s prime locales for fungi. Look for black and funnel chanterelles, belly-button hedgehogs, yellow-veiled amanitas, western grisettes, king boletes, satan’s boletes, purple-staining lactarius, and pink-tipped coral fungus. Other common mushrooms include the butter bolete, a cinnamon-to-yellowish fungus commonly found near oaks and tan oaks, and the aptly named beafsteak fungus, which resembles a slab of meat as it bleeds a reddish juice when torn apart. (Five pounds per person per day.)
Other locations: Annadel State Park (Santa Rosa); Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve (Guerneville); Bothe-Napa Valley State Park (St. Helena); Robert Louis Stevenson State Park (Calistoga)
To Learn More:
The best place to start is one of the local mushroom associations:
Any knowledgeable mushroomer will steer neophytes toward David Arora‘s classic tomes, All That the Rain Promises, and More (Ten Speed Press, 1991) and the all-encompassing Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi (Ten Speed Press, 2nd ed.,1989), among the myriad mushroom books available.
Thanks to Mike Wood, Bob Mackler, Chris Thayer, Barry Breckling, and Debbie Viess for sharing their favorite places to mushroom and their love of the hunt.